Paul Netscher: Contractors who don’t move with the times will be left behind by their competitors.

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Paul Netscher Aproplan SmartbuildingPaul Netscher is a construction management consultant and writer based in Perth, Australia. He has 3 decades of quality construction management experience that spans 120 projects in 6 countries that include industrial, concrete, building, earthworks and infrastructure. His specialties include securing projects, tendering, risk management, project planning, contract variations, project management, safety, training, construction management systems, cost management, lectures and workshops (among other things)

Paul is also an author of four acclaimed construction books namely: Successful Construction Project Management: The Practical Guide, Building a Successful Construction Company: The Practical Guide, Construction Claims: A Short Guide for Contractors, and Construction Project Management: Tips and Insights. You can find the links to his books here. He is also a regular guest blogger for various websites and his articles have been published on Clockshark, Accede, qsadvisor and GenieBelt.

Paul is considered a legend in construction. We recently interviewed him to pick his brain regarding his construction management experience and some valuable insights in the industry. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of the conversation.

You have 30 years’ experience in the construction sector. Can you share with us briefly the career path that you have followed?

Paul Netscher: After obtaining a degree in Civil Engineering, I started work with a medium sized construction company that grew to a successful multinational company. I stayed for 25 years. Starting off on a major multidisciplinary construction project which was just beginning, I assisted the site surveyor, moved to the laboratory, before being given my own section to manage. Eighteen months later, together with a supervisor, I was project manager of my own small project.

From there, I went on to manage many bigger projects covering a wide spectrum of work, eventually becoming a project director responsible for multiple projects. Ultimately, I headed a newly formed construction division in the company which provided exciting opportunities to grow the division and, as importantly, grow and develop my team, providing them with new roles and opportunities. I later moved to Australia where I worked for a couple of years. I’ve been fortunate that I’ve worked on a variety of construction projects in many different fields.

Can you give us an introduction to the books you have written?

Too often construction projects and companies fail because of poor management. Many project managers are mediocre and don’t understand the basics, because no one taught them. Unfortunately, sometimes their managers are no better, so can’t teach them. These seem to be universal problems.

My four books aim to share my knowledge and experience (gained from many successes and some mistakes). They’re easy to read, filled with practical examples, all available on Amazon and other online stores. The first, ‘Successful Construction Project Management’, is aimed at construction managers, the second, ‘Building a Successful Construction Company’, is an extension of the first book and should help construction managers and construction business owners. My third book, ‘Construction Claims’, provides guidelines and tips for submitting variation claims, and the fourth, ‘Construction Project Management’, includes general construction tips and insights. I’ve been fortunate to receive amazing positive feedback from readers across the world.

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What three things would you advise anyone just starting in the construction industry?

Most importantly, start work with a company that will give you valuable experience. A company with knowledgeable and experienced people. Don’t select a company based only on pay, or the location of their projects. Getting the right experience with a good company will set your career for the future. Unlearning bad habits gained from poor work experience will be costly and frustrating.

Ask questions from managers, supervisors, suppliers and anyone that can help. Those in construction are often bad at passing on knowledge and delegating responsibility unless asked. Grab opportunities and request new responsibilities. You are responsible for growing your career.

The success of any project depends on good planning, and I’m not talking only about the schedule or program, rather it’s about planning how the project will be constructed and resourced. Planning the job at the start, planning what needs to be done today, tomorrow and next week. Thinking ahead and avoiding potential problems. After planning comes communication. Communicating clearly with your team, the client, designers, suppliers, subcontractors and other stakeholders, so they understand the plan.

With your knowledge of the construction industry now, what would you have done differently when you were just starting out?

Fortunately, I picked the right company that provided me valuable experience and opportunities. I grabbed those opportunities and made the best of them. I don’t think I would change much, other than avoiding a few small mistakes along the way.

What would you say is the number one key to success in your business?

Employ good people. Good people are literally worth their weight in gold. Look after those people. Provide training and growth opportunities.

Talk about the biggest failure you’ve had. What did you learn from it?

It’s always important as a manager to understand the abilities of those working for you — to support their weaknesses and use their strengths. I suppose the few projects that went wrong were those when I worked with a new team — I expected too much from them. You shouldn’t micro manage those working for you and should give them an opportunity to grow (sometimes even make their own mistakes). With a new team, it can be difficult to know when you have to step in and take control.

What has been the biggest challenge thus far in your career?

Construction faces many challenges. These include finding skilled people, reliable subcontractors and trusted suppliers. It’s often difficult to find good clients and to break into new markets. Sometimes it can be challenging to convince people to change to new systems and different ways of doing things.

What’s your personal opinion on the disruption and digitalisation of the construction industry? How do you see the future of construction?

The industry must embrace the digital age. Most young entrants into the industry have grown up with smart phones and computers. Yet, I know large contractors who baulk at the idea (and cost) of providing smart phones and tablets to their management and supervision staff. The younger generation expects to use technology — they thrive on it. There are huge benefits to using some of the apps and software to more easily manage construction projects. The problem is selecting those that are most appropriate for the company and project. There is no ‘one product fits all’ and contractors should be wary of sales pitches. There will be failed systems along the way — the wrong system for the company, a system that doesn’t work, or in many cases contractors that are just too lazy to convert from their old way of doing business and to learn how to use the new system.

“Contractors who don’t move with the times will be left behind by their competitors.”

What do you think of integrated project delivery as a tool in increasing productivity throughout the construction process?

The most successful projects I’ve been involved with have been those where the client, project manager, designers and contractors have worked together as a team. Unfortunately, the success of a project is often only viewed through the eyes of one party, and usually only one phase of the project is considered. So, a project could be delivered on schedule and under budget but it would be a failure for the contractor if they lost money, or the project could not perform as expected for the owner who may have high operating and maintenance costs. Regrettably, owners often focus on a competitive bidding process selecting the cheapest designer and contractor which is often a recipe for conflict and project failure. It’s important to focus on teamwork and open and honest communication and to ensure that each phase of the project meets expectations and that no stakeholder loses.

BIM and other software solutions are sometimes seen as the savior of our projects. But, it is important to remember that they are a tool. Like any tool they must be used correctly and they should be appropriate to the project. Technology cannot turn a poor project manager into a good project manager — but, used properly, it helps a good project manager do their work more efficiently and effectively.

There are great advancements in technology that have the capability of improving the way we construct and manage our projects. But, we still need skilled people and we must understand the benefits and constraints of the systems we use.

What challenges, in your opinion, does the construction sector face in 2017?

The biggest challenge is a shortage of skills. This seems to be a perennial problem across all countries. Yet, the industry doesn’t help themselves. Companies don’t want to train and they don’t want to give young inexperienced people an opportunity. Contractors expect that they’ll always find someone suitably qualified and experienced — but it doesn’t work like that. We were all inexperienced and knew very little once. But, fortunately, a company had the vision to employ and teach us, providing the opportunities for us to grow. I’ve had enormous success employing young graduates and teaching them, and training and mentoring people within the organization — general workers to become tradespeople, tradespeople to become supervisors. In almost every case our company has been hugely rewarded for this faith and commitment.

The cyclical nature of construction always makes it difficult for contractors to plan and operate. I wish governments were more proactive to help smooth the cycles. Financially, it would be beneficial for governments to hold back work when the construction market was booming, with construction costs high, to times when work was scarce and prices were dropping.

“Construction has essentially remained the same for hundreds of years, but we are now facing rapid change which is driven by technology. There are new ways of doing business. New materials. New construction methods. Contractors who don’t adapt will be left behind by competitors. But, there are also risks of picking the wrong technology, the wrong software, unsuitable equipment and flawed materials.”

We have previous articles that echo the same sentiments as Paul Netscher. We agree that it’s in embracing new ideas that paves the way to solving construction’s poor delivery and it’s what you need to stay ahead in this industry. Learn more about the most common construction problems that technology can help solve. Aside from adapting to new methods and technology, there are additional tips to further improve on your construction productivity in the linked downloadable ebook.